Connor Southwell: Why I owe City skipper Hanley an apology

Grant Hanley of Norwich in action during the Sky Bet Championship match at Carrow Road, Norwich
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Grant Hanley has been terrific for Norwich City this season. - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Sometimes a player can arrive at a club and, for whatever reason, there's a perception about either their quality or style of play.

That statement is certainly true of Grant Hanley prior to his arrival at Norwich City. 

Exclude the permanent deals for Dimitris Giannoulis and Ben Gibson which are set to officially go through on July 1 and the move to bring the Scottish international to Norfolk from Newcastle United remains the biggest outlay since Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke arrived at the club. 

When football fans outside of Norfolk think about Hanley, they think of a no-nonsense defender who isn't particularly quick and represents a bit of a throwback in terms of his style. 

That was something that I, wrongfully, fell for. 

What Hanley has proven since arriving at Carrow Road is that perception couldn't be further from reality. 

The 29-year-old is currently both City's and Scotland's best centre-back in terms of defensive quality. He has been a key protagonist in leading the Canaries back to the top flight and will be a starting choice for Scotland at the European Championships this summer. 

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That's not a bad set of achievements for a slow, rugged defender. 

Except, Hanley has proven that perception to be a fallacy. And yet it continues to follow him around despite his successes since joining City. 

Grant Hanley of Norwich makes a great last ditch tackle to deny Andre Gray of Watford during the Sky

Grant Hanley of Norwich makes a great last ditch tackle to deny Andre Gray of Watford during the Sky Bet Championship match at Carrow Road, Norwich Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd +44 7904 640267 20/04/2021 - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

It has been a frequent comment made by co-commentators who form part of the television coverage whenever City have appeared on the gogglebox, this false statement that Hanley lacks pace. As Norwich fans know, beyond Przemek Placheta, the Scot is the fastest player at the club. 

Even among Scotland fans, there is a perception of Hanley.

But he is so much more than a 'no-nonsense defender'. Defensively, City's captain is superb. Only on very few occasions has a striker at this level got the better of him. His reading of the game is perfect, his pace allows him to recover the ball when a team break the structure of their back four.

Since arriving at City, there has been a major development in terms of his ball progression and retention capabilities, and yet he doesn't attempt to play passes beyond his ability. That is the key to such a strong relationship with Gibson, they both complement each other's qualities wonderfully. 

Gibson was the player to break the lines with progressive passes and begin attacks, Hanley is there to cover should City get turned. 

Even the small details have been improved, the manner in which Hanley and Gibson looked to push up five yards when possession was reclaimed or an opponent is forced back towards their own goal in order to squeeze the play higher up the pitch, that is the sign of a top team. 

Technically, as a defender, he is intelligent. Not only combative in the air but positionally aware and capable of reading the game effectively. Those core defensive attributes have allowed him to be so commanding at this level this season. 

He has proven those perceptions to be baseless. In a City defence that was porous last season, he has offered leadership and quality. 

We've seen glimpses of this throughout his Canaries career to date, it has been fitness rather than quality that have stifled his progress. So far, he's managed to keep himself injury-free and has enjoyed a prolonged period in the heart of City's defence. 

Daniel Farke hugs Norwich City captain Grant Hanley after a 2-0 Championship win at Nottingham Fores

Hanley has been a reliable member of Daniel Farke's promotion winning squad. - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Hanley has been an immense presence, worthy of all the praise that is being thrown in his direction. 

There is a reason Steve Clarke has been desperate to include him in his Scotland squad since his appointment back in 2019. 

But playing a Clarke defence compared to a Farke defence is completely different. 

Hanley occupies the central role in a back three, he is essentially the stopper. The style of play at national level isn't a replica of what the 29-year-old has become apart of during his time at Carrow Road. 

Beyond Kieran Tierney, who is playing as a makeshift centre-back in a back three, Hanley is the best in that position that Clarke has at his disposal. Despite Declan Gallagher performing well against Serbia and Andy Considine providing a nice narrative, boil it down to quality and Hanley comes out on top. 

Time after time, he is breaking these perceptions. People see Hanley as a mainstay of a successful City defence and raise their eyebrow. That shouldn't be the case. He has real quality. This isn't a coincidence. 

Farke has moulded him into a more rounded centre back, and he heads into the Premier League a much better player than two seasons ago. Are there limitations? Of course, but Hanley knows that. 

Grant Hanley of Norwich in action during the Sky Bet Championship match at Carrow Road, Norwich
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Hanley has been a leader at the back for City. - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

That simplicity that runs through his game is admirable. It is a reason City fans think of him so fondly. He doesn't pretend to be something he isn't, yet is a master at what he is good at. 

Above all that, he has been an encouraging voice to young players including Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons and Andrew Omobamidele. He is a player who could become the next to enjoy a prolonged spell in Norfolk. 

So sorry Grant, for misperceiving you and buying into a false image. You've shown everyone the real player, and he is excellent. 

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